The Glory of Gau-Mata: The Unbroken Heritage of Cattle Rearing and Worship in Bharatavarsha

The Glory of Gau-Mata: The Unbroken Heritage of Cattle Rearing and Worship in Bharatavarsha

The first episode of a new series tracing the evocative and rich tradition of Cow worship and cattle rearing in ancient India. The Go-Mata heritage is one of Bharatavarsha's unique gifts to world civilisation itself.

Editor’s Note

THIS IS THE FIRST EPISODE of an abridged version of a detailed and valuable academic paper authored by the late scholar, Sri R. Ganguli in 1931 for the Bhandarkar Institute’s journal. Minor edits have been made to language in the interest of contemporaneity. 

Happy reading!

— Chapter 1 — 

In this essay, an attempt has been made to deal with Cattle and Cattle-rearing in ancient India. The subject has been treated under five heads, viz: 

1. Cattle-objects of great care and religious veneration 

2. Keeping and employing cattle 

3. Diseases and their treatment 

4. Feeding and stock breeding 

5. Conclusion

Cattle is the equivalent of the Sanskrit word, Go. Besides cattle, the word Go has a host of other synonyms such as the earth, the Goddess of Speech, water, rays of the Sun, mother, etc. In the Puranas, we find the cow as a symbolical representation of the Earth, rays of the Sun, or the Goddess of speech. 

Buddha, in his discourse against the killing of cows says, “Like unto mother, the cows are our best friends. As water, earth, gold, wealth and corn, even so are the cows for men, for this is a requisite for living beings.”

Ap (Water) is life-giving, the Earth bears all living beings and offers sustenance to them, and Vaak is the gracious goddess who feeds the reflective mind. When we trace the evolution of the Sanatana spiritual culture and civilisation, it becomes clear that the usefulness of the cow became identified with all that sustains body and mind. This beautiful hymn from the Rg Veda shows the depth of the Hindu feeling for the cow. 

Come back, go not elsewhere! Abounding in wealth, sprinkle us. Agni and Soma, you who clothe (your worshippers ) again, bestow upon us riches. ring them back again, render them obedient. May Indra restore them. May Agni bring them near us. May they come back to me. O Agni, do Agni keep them here. I invoke the knowledge of the place, of their going, of their coming, of their departure, of their wandering, of their returning. I invoke the Protector of the cow. 

“Indra, bring back our cattle. Give us our cows again. May we rejoice in our cows being alive. I nourish you O Devatas, who are everywhere present, with curds, with butter, with milk. Come back, all my dear cows.”

Gotra and Goshti

In the Vedic society, cattle formed the principal property of the people. It is quite natural therefore, that they were so anxious for the safe keeping of their cattle. Indeed, they formed into gotras and goshtis for the protection of their cattle against wild animals and robbers. The literal meaning of gotra and goshti are respectively, “common cow-stall” and “common pasture land.” In that ancient period, several families or groups of families entered into a mutual understanding to erect a strong common enclosure for the protection of their cattle. Those families who held a common cow-stall belonged to the same gotra and a number of gotras who used a common pasture land, likewise belonged to the same goshti.

Some Uses of Cattle 

Apart from cows, oxen became indispensable for ploughing land and other agricultural work. Bullocks and buffaloes were necessary for drawing carts and caravans. Cow-dung was necessary for manuring the fields and milk necessary for daily consumption and for offering libations and also for preparing butter, ghee, curd, various kinds of cakes, sweets etc. 

Hot fomentation with cow’s urine was discovered to be an infallible remedy for hepatic inflamation. A solution of cow-dung in water was found to be a good disinfectant and dried cow-dung was found necessary for druggists’ furnaces. 

Abolition of Cow Slaughter

In the Brahmanadhammika Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, we find the Buddha enumerating the usefulness of the cow and strongly protesting against cow- killing. 

By the Sutra period, we find that the cow had already acquired an incontrovertible sanctity, which persists till date. Wilful killing of a cow was considered such a serious offence that the killer was to be punished by mutilation. And even if a perosn killed a cow accidentally or happened to be the indirect cause of its death, he was to undergo severely austere penances. 

The Arthasastra’s law in this regard is even more drastic: “whoever hurts or causes another to hurt, steals or causes another person to steal a cow should be slain.” 

The Brhaspatismiti lays down that suspected thieves of cattle should be subjected to the ordeal of the ploughshare and if the guilt was proved, they should be heavily punished. The ordeal itself was a severe punishment and it certainly produced the desired moral impact upon those who had questionable characters.

On the other hand, any act done for the welfare of the bovine species was highly commendable and regarded as virtuous. In this connection, the Agni Purana has an evocative passage: 

“The cows are holy and blissful and the universe owes its existence to the bovine species. Hallowed is the touch of a cow and hallowed is the ground she stands upon. Cows offer the best sustenance to all sorts of animals. The cows are the holiest of the holiest, the best of all auspicious sights. The water pools in which a cow drinks should be deemed as a sanctuary. 

“The man who gives morsels of food every day to a cow, is sure to ascend heaven after death. The man who provides a cow belonging to another person with similar morsels of food merits a similar salvation. The man who does anything for the welfare of the bovine species in general goes to the region of Brahman after death. The man who makes the gift of a cow or sings any hymn in her praise or rescues her life from danger ensures the salvation of all souls any way related to him in life."

It is clear that from the earliest period, Hindus had always borne in their hearts a tender solicitude for the well-being of their cattle, which eventually evolved as reverence and whose practical implication was also seen in law and jurisprudence. 

To be continued  

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